The Russian Duma has passed a second reading of a religious offense law that has provoked a firestorm of controversy. The legislation has been softened, but still represents a significant ramping up of punishments compared to existing laws.
The second reading was approved overwhelmingly, with 304 Duma deputies voting for, only 4 against and 1 abstention. Still, several leading parliamentarians expressed reservations about the draft bill, which could be passed in its third and final reading as early as this week.
Under the revised bill, Russians would face a year in jail for "intentional" and "public" displays that cause "offense to religious sensibilities,” down from three in the previous draft; desecrating religious sites and paraphernalia would be punishable by up to three years in jail, down from five.
“An offense to religious sensibilities is a term that defies definition. A radical believer could find offense in expressions of other people’s faith, or atheism,” said Communist deputy Oleg Smolin, whose party, the second largest in the Duma, voted for the law as a bloc.
Advocates of the law defended it vigorously. “We are not talking about the subjective term ‘religious offense.’ which is admittedly difficult to qualify. The law only punishes public acts that obviously go out of their way to insult a religion,” said Mikhail Markelov, a member of ruling United Russia party.
Markelov also noted that the bill covers all of Russia’s major religions, not just Orthodox Christianity: “The legislation has been chiseled to perfection, and reflects the desires of the majority of our society.”
But Sergey Mironov, from the minority Fair Russia party, the only one that gave its members a free vote, was unconvinced: “We are happy that the proposal has been scaled back from covering all religious offense, to deliberate acts. But we are still not sure that it can be stretched to indict many Russians, even those who did not set out to offend anyone.”
Mironov’s remarks echoed the concerns of leading lawyer Henry Reznik, who was brought in as a legal consultant during the drafting of the amendments. He said the language of the law was“legally meaningless” and a “rubber band.” Others claimed that the law was unconstitutional – violating the equality of Russian citizens by legally prioritizing personal beliefs of some citizens over others.
Opponents of the legislation at least welcomed that the second reading did not create a separate article of the penal code, but folded the new legislation into an existing article on Obstruction of the Right to Exercise Religious Liberty, though the previous maximum sentence for that offense was one year in prison.
The original draft bill arose out of the fallout over the infamous Punk Prayer performed by the protest group Pussy Riot in Moscow’s main cathedral in February last year. Three members of the political art collective, who briefly recited a poem aimed at the Russian Orthodox Church and Vladimir Putin, were convicted on broader charges of hooliganism. Two of the three are still in jail.
Legal experts claimed the hooliganism charge was ill-fitted to
prosecuting provocative public performances, and the anti-blasphemy
law was submitted by the four leading Russian parties in September
It is now expected to come into force without major changes sometime this year.